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Be Not Afraid

The merchants of fear are busy on social media in the wake of the Paris tragedy. ISIL has cast suspicion on every innocent refugee trying to flee its cruel regime. People are assuming that every one of them is a potential agent of terror. I feel sickened and saddened  – not only by the carnage in the City of Light, but also by the vicious campaign being waged against innocent people in a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable impact. Are there any quick solutions to this situation? No. It is a logistical minefield. However, the response to catastrophe should not include intolerance toward those caught up in it. Anti-refugee bigotry is being promoted all over social media. It touches people I know; it strikes locally and it strikes internationally.

We have opened the gates of our hearts – to let out compassion; to let in hate. And thus the terrorists win. Hatred is their currency. It is cheap to mint and readily-accepted by far too many of us. But the faces stamped on these coins are quite often our own.

A number of these refugees – Syrians, at any rate – are professionals in various fields. Contrary to popular belief, there IS an education system in Syria. These folks read, write, study, have hopes of a better life. They’re not warriors of any sort. They lack access to arms – unlike the forces to whom certain more powerful nations are quite willing to sell weapons. Since 2011, as of this past September, American munitions makers have sold $7.7 BILLION dollars’ worth of arms to Syrian forces! Sadly, the US has accepted only 1434 refugees from that country. Canada has provided $718 million worth of weaponry. We’ve accepted 2300 refugees. So-called “military aid” doesn’t always fall into the hands of freedom fighters. And a considerable stockpile of US-made weapons constitutes a legacy of the Iraq war. “Many of these same countries fueling the slaughter have also been some of the least willing to grant amnesty to Syria’s refugees.” (US Uncut, Sept. 4, 2015)

I read a poignant interview a couple days ago by a pharmacist who wanted to come to Canada. He’s not unusual. He just wants to be safe, with his family, and work toward a decent future. The majority of Syrian refugees are women and children of both genders, despite what some would have us believe. 50% are under the age of 17! Not even old enough to graduate from our Canadian high schools. 24% are women aged 18-39, and 22% are men in that age range. So to those who try to spread the disinformation that most refugees are males of “fighting age” – you are WRONG. Refer to the UN Refugee Agency. Updated statistics are always available. Here’s the link to their figures. Don’t take my word for this; check for yourselves. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

These refugees, contrary to popular misconception, are mainly families – and they’re powerless to stand against the kind of weaponry that ISIL has at its disposal (often provided by Western countries, as noted above). They cannot simply rise up and fight back. They would be slaughtered – creating a nation of widows and orphans, worse than it is now. There’s bravery and there’s futility. Big difference. Yet I keep reading posts that the men ought to “go back home and fight.” With WHAT? Sticks? They’d be facing assault rifles and explosives and whatever else ISIL has managed to acquire. Purchased, captured or stolen, these weapons can easily fall into merciless hands.

“Ah,” you might say, “But ISIL has infiltrated the refugee camps and planted their agents among these people.” Probably true – as far as it goes. However, those agents would most likely constitute a small percentage. One Syrian passport found near a suicide bomber’s corpse does not equal four million terrorists. Two, or five, or a dozen passports still don’t signify that most refugees mean to do harm. But people bent on inflicting devastation are very good at disguising their intentions. They learn to blend in. Otherwise, it would be too easy to spot their presence. They surround themselves with innocents, knowing full well that when they do act, those innocents will be instantly burdened with their wrongdoings. Suspicion is terror’s constant – and in some ways, far more insidious – companion.

I did some fact-checking and discovered that right here in Canada, 10% of us have criminal records. While some of those crimes may have been minor, I’d guess that maybe 3 out of 10 – at least – were not. Canada is the home of Clifford Olsen, Robert Pickton, Paul Bernardo, Marc Lepine, Alan Legere and a whole collection of other brutes. We’ve spawned the FLQ. We failed to prevent Babbar Khalsa from planting a bomb on Air India Flight 182 out of Toronto/Montreal and killing 329 people – 268 of whom were Canadian citizens.

Our collective Canadian hands are NOT clean! If we believe otherwise, we are lying to ourselves. And for every hateful word or deed, for every hopeful human being denied a chance to realize that hope, the stains spread and darken. We cannot distance ourselves from the bleeding. We cannot close our borders and turn away the victims of brutality and repression. This isn’t who we are as Canadians … is it?

We – together with the US and Cuba – denied SS St Louis entry to a safe port in 1939. We sent hundreds of Jewish passengers back to Europe, where many of them died in Auschwitz and Sobibor. Surely we’ve grown more civilized since that terrible time? Surely we have …

Reading Facebook this weekend, I’m no longer convinced of our Canadian cohesion in the face of fear. But I can’t generalize. That would be unfair. I’d be guilty of the same narrow-mindedness as those who try to generalize about Syrian refugees. I think most of us are still kind, altruistic, reasonable, humane. I just wish those of us who lack these qualities weren’t quite so loud about it. But in the end, we must inevitably reveal our true character, for good or ill. May the good assume the upper hand. And may we not be afraid, because this is what terror networks aim to do – make us afraid. And then will come other emotions. Fear makes us turn on each other. It fractures our unified stance against a common enemy. No wonder ISIL is pressuring us to do this. “Divide and conquer” is an approach as old as humanity.

But division can never bring peace. That has to start from within. We can’t let go of each other. We can’t break our own civil society into fragments. There will always be someone waiting to take advantage, poised and ready to hide in the spaces between. We must not allow this. Not ever.

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In Remembrance

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Today, we remember the lost, the fallen, who often lie in waters or fields unknown except to God, without recorded names – without anyone now alive who can recall their faces.

I think of Ezekiel’s vision, the Valley of Dry Bones, when dusty skeletons are clothed in flesh and rise, a vast army, to stand before us. We are about to clothe in flesh – for an hour’s communion – these honoured dead. They were the children of Israel in Ezekiel’s dream but now, they are the children of all humanity, friend or foe, resting together. For this one day, our own are standing again; we can see them on the periphery of the crowd, gathered among trees, walking down cemetery rows. They lean fold-armed beside their old comrades and circle the poppied cenotaphs; they touch the shoulders of young cadets who stand watch with heads bowed. They pass as the wind, and a teenager in immaculate uniform is moved to wonder at this; at the feeling that someone has gently touched her face in greeting. The old man beside her has no curiosity. He already knows what and who it was.

These great armies and squadrons and fleets marched, soared or sailed forth with hope and resolution, bound for their own destinies, praying they would not fail. They must have been daunted by the enormity of this task, frightened by their own frailty, unable to dwell on that fear lest they give in to it. They would have been anxious to return home at the end of it all. And while many did survive, numberless millions did not. No one endures any conflict untouched; if the body remains unmarked, the mind carries its own gashes. The living, too, have experienced a form of death. It is heavy on them; it is in them, in their eyes and hands and voices. They have given up something that most young people take for granted: some call it innocence. I believe it is, in part, the idea that there can be permanent victory or defeat with clear boundaries between them.

But in any war, although I’ve shared only in my father’s reflections rather than the actual experience, I suspect that clarity might be difficult to grasp. Who, really, is the enemy? Is it the kid who was driven to fight because his community or national leaders demanded it? The commander who knows that no matter what he might do to protect them, his men will be placed at dreadful risk and that many will fall? The artist sketching a propaganda poster in some stone building far removed from the guns? The father desperate to protect his family from threat of destruction? The German submariner who enters a Derry pub and finds himself surrounded by sailors from an opposing navy, men who offer him a foaming pint and clear a place at the bar?

We can easily recognize the brutal and corrupt leadership whose motives have forced such horrors on everyone else. They are almost unreachable and they destroy anyone who dares to confront their authority. But between these war-dealers and their adversaries, there strides that vast army of clothed bones – youth whose parents loved them, hugged them, cried when they left home. They march for the side of evil, or for the side of right and truth. We can tell the difference, of course. Or so we believe. But the lines blur over time. Monsters are destroyed, warring parties reconcile, treaties are established and the world lurches forward. The dead sleep well, even among those who have killed them. They cannot differentiate. Only we can do that.

Still, every combatant understands the price of victory.They have all paid their tokens in advance, but the coinage weighs more for some than for others. And now they come to us, full of love for this nation they have so proudly served, and asking that we remember – not for themselves, but for us. That we acknowledge the apathy, the callousness, the depths of both greed and hatred that bring devastation to humankind. That we choose to take another road and give everything we own to keep it secure.

Surely, we can promise them this. While war brings its uncertainties, the protection of peace is a choice that few can argue. We must promise them our best and finest efforts, in memory of theirs.